A blog from John Kotter (and us)
Picture this: you’re in the middle of presenting your proposal and a person at the far end of the table raises her hand. “I’m not even sure the ‘problem’ you’re describing exists, or is a big deal at all!” How do you deal with that?
From reading your responses to my previous posts, I find that many people aren’t able to even reach the point where they can debate the merits of their proposal. Many get bogged down in the quagmire of trying to effectively communicate the nature and extent of the problem. If you can’t do that, it doesn’t much matter what your proposal is. People aren’t going to consider anything until they are convinced there is a problem that truly needs to be addressed. In scenarios like this, I’ve found that it’s effective to highlight the problem and the people affected by it in a way that makes the problem feel real. What’s less effective — and far more common — is to make a dry business case that, even if correct, is usually less persuasive and less memorable than it needs to be.
On this topic, one story I’ve always liked (from my book The Heart of Change) I affectionately call “Gloves on the Boardroom Table.” A large organization had an inefficient purchasing process, and one mid-level executive believed that money was constantly being wasted with each of the organization’s factories handling their own purchases. He thought there could be tremendous savings from consolidating the procurement effort. He put together a “business case” for change but it went nowhere. His boss said that senior executives didn’t feel it was truly a big problem, especially with so many other daily challenges taking up their time. So the manager had an idea: he collected the 424 different kinds of work gloves the factories collectively purchased and tagged each one with its different price and supplier. He carted the gloves in and dumped them on the boardroom table before a senior executive team meeting. He first showed the pile to his boss, who was taken aback by this powerful visual display of the waste inherent in having dozens of different factories negotiate different deals for the items they needed! The boss showed the CEO, who scrapped the meeting agenda to talk about procurement because what he was looking at was so memorable, so compelling, and so real. It galvanized the executives to action. Ultimately, they overhauled their procurement process and saved a great deal of money.
I’ve called the process used here See, Feel, and Change, as opposed to Analyse, Think, and Change. The latter is all head, no heart, and often fails to motivate people to recognize the importance of a given problem. It’s too easily forgotten or ignored if it doesn’t feel real.
So what is my everyday advice if you can’t always collect, catalogue, and cart around 424 pairs of gloves? One way is to highlight the real, personal consequences of the problem you want people to see, and to highlight the real people who suffer because of it. My newer book, Buy-In, features a story of someone presenting a plan to provide new computers for a local library. When dissenters don’t listen because they don’t think there is a problem with the current computers, the presenter has two options. He could use PowerPoint slides to compare the library’s computers to current computer models sold in stores, showing the difference in processing power, memory capacity, and modem speed. Or he could relate the true story of a local fourth-grader from a poor family who relies on the library’s computers for homework — computers that are too slow and outdated to allow her to finish her assignments, leaving her underprepared for school. Which case would you find more compelling?
Which case makes the problem feel real?
(HBR Blog – John Kotter, Posted 2:50 pm Wednesday February 16, 2011)
Our View – Turning Up the Heat
The post from John highlights a critical dimension of exercising leadership effectively – and that is the need to be able to generate sufficient ‘heat’ within a system (e.g. individual, team, business unit, division, society, etc.) to overcome inertia and create change. Creating heat or tension can create the spark needed for people in organisations to take action at the local level – where the problem resides. By dumping 424 pairs of gloves on the boardroom table in the example above, the ‘protagonist’ raised the heat sufficiently within the Executive Team.
So the real question – and skill – becomes how do you effectively bring attention to the most pressing issues in your organisation? There is little doubt that you will know from first-hand experience that this can be a risky and thankless act. When was the last time you saw someone thanked for pointing out a thorny issue like the canyon between espoused and lived values? It’s not likely they – or you – won the CEO’s award from good citizenship. Organisations will instead work (apparently) effortlessly and ‘beautifully’ to maintain equilibrium, or as it is usually called, the status quo. In fact, organisations are perfectly aligned to get the results they get.
When systems work in this way, the consequences can be severe and swift. As the person seeking change, you may be ‘taken out’ (e.g. moved, sidelined or sacked) or you may find yourself scapegoated and suddenly the cause of the world’s ills. There are a myriad of ways others will try to quell the change. In our programs, we teach individuals and teams who choose to exercise leadership to increase the temperature intelligently by considering the following acronym ‘CARE’:
Create a holding environment – a holding environment is a space formed by a network of relationships within which people can tackle tough questions and challenges where you can contain and adjust the heat that is being generated. The stronger the holding environment, the less heat is needed to make progress.
Ask questions – asking tough challenging questions probably won’t win you any friends, but what it will win you is respect and confidence in your ability to get others to focus on what’s important. Questions should focus on exploring the real issues, clarifying purpose, surfacing conflict and difference, and challenging the status quo.
Refrain from giving the answers – providing the answers is so ingrained in us that we almost do it without thinking. Providing answers and solutions for people usually has the effect of lowering rather than raising the heat as people are let off the hook and don’t need to take responsibility for making progress (it’s easy to say ‘that’s what I was told to do’ when it all goes pear shaped). Another challenging thought is that no one person actually has all the answers and so should defer to the collective to work it out.
Explore the real issues – it is often quicker and at least on the surface, more efficient to gloss over the real issues by applying quick fixes. The problem is that quick fixes are rarely good fixes. By applying the three strategies above of Create, Ask and Refrain, real issues will be surfaced, dissenting and minority views will be heard and more effective and accurate diagnosis is likely to occur.
Copyright: The Leadership Sphere Pty Ltd 2011.
The Leadership Sphere is the trusted business partner to many of Australia’s largest and most respected companies across a range of industries. We specialise in Leadership Development, Corporate Team Development and Culture Change.